A few years back I was the quintessential couch potato. This wasn't my particular lifestyle choice but rather the start of a long struggle with chronic health problems. By early afternoon, my day would be over. Fatigue would roll in like a tsunami and the sofa would be my best friend. Dizziness and sickness meant that I'd struggle to get anything done. Life was just an existence.
After a while, I was prescribed steroids. The difference was unbelievable, best described as coming out of a very dark tunnel and back into the sun. From sitting on the sidelines, I was participating, experiencing and enjoying life again. My family and friends were stunned and overjoyed by the improvement in my health. It felt so good and I was really happy to finally catch up with a friend I hadn't seen for a long time. I was certain she'd be equally excited to see the change in me.
Her only reaction?
'Lucky that extra weight looks good on you'.
A back-handed compliment if ever there was one.
For those who don't know, one of the many side effects of steroids is the weight gain. It's something a lot of people who take these drugs struggle with.
I said nothing but I was hurt and I'm sure she must have sensed it. I've never been very good at masking my feelings. No mention of how much better I was doing, just a comment about my weight.
Later that night, I sat down quietly and tried to digest what had happened. I wondered if I was being extra sensitive? Were my own insecurities skewing the way I read the situation? But then I realised that this represented a longstanding pattern in this particular friendship. My friend was happiest when I was struggling. Any time that I achieved anything, I'd receive a put down, albeit very subtly disguised as a complement.
This kind of behaviour has been called 'undermining' and it can be hurtful, not only in the moment, but it can also ultimately damage self-esteem when it occurs repeatedly.
There are a number of ways to handle this situation. Over the years, by saying and doing nothing, I allowed this pattern to continue. I would feel bad, blame my friend for making me feel that way, but then forget about it. It was only when I had my 'aha' moment, after that last interaction, that I realised I needed to take responsibility for letting her continue to treat me this way.
I needed to let her know how I felt. The next time something similar happened, I called her on it. Quite calmly and unemotionally. She laughed it off. She dismissed me as being overly sensitive and unable to accept a compliment.
Leaving a friendship is a difficult decision to make and so I let things continue along for a while. However, nothing changed, the pattern continued. Eventually, I finally decided that the friendship was harmful to me and I gradually started putting more distance between us. The friendship gradually evapourated. Hard but healthier for me.
True friendship is one of the greatest gifts we can receive. Letting go of someone we have considered to be our friend is painful but sometimes it's important to evaluate our relationships honestly in terms of their impact upon us.
Signs that you're being undermined *
Receiving comments that have double meanings and leave you feeling confused and invalidated.
Receiving recurrent hurtful comments, often disguised as humour or as caring statements.
Feeling bad about yourself after spending time with the individual.
Having your feelings dismissed as reflecting your insecurity when you confront the individual about their comments.
Undermining is only one of many 'toxic' patterns of friendship. For more information on how to recognise such relationships and how to deal with them, check out the resources listed below.
* From psychologist Jenny Garth, Good Medicine magazine